Why you should see the Seattle Art Museum’s new Giacometti exhibition – The Seattle Times | Candle Made Easy

exhibition review

Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures of tall, elegant, gaunt people are widespread in people’s minds. The Swiss artist (1901-1966), Italian-named, lived in Paris for most of his adulthood and is known for his larger-than-life, impossibly thin, unevenly textured bronze figures. These sculptures — with stripped-down titles like “Standing Woman” and “Walking Man” — have been collected by major museums around the world, meaning many, many people have seen one or two of these unforgettable, lonely giants.

And yet, as evidenced by a major new exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, Giacometti spent most of his artistic life in much smaller explorations of the human form. If you attend the show (and you should), you might be tempted to dash through the galleries to the iconic “Walking Man I” (almost 6ft tall) and “Tall Woman IV” (at over 8 1/2 2 feet high) at the end of the exhibition.

But both works date from the 1960s, when Giacometti had been working with this reduced treatment of the human figure for 25 years. Think about it for a moment. There are more than 60 sculptures on display, but only a handful of human poses and forms. These simple poses – standing, sitting, kneeling, or very rarely stepping forward – are repeated over and over again.

Giacometti also applied his modernist technique to the ancient form of portrait heads and busts. Apart from the occasional surprising landscape painting or interior print, there is essentially only one subject: the human figure.

But perhaps it is more correct to say that Giacometti’s subject was actually the question of subjectivity: how each of us as individuals relates to and acts in the world around us. For decades, Giacometti focused on rendering the human body in order to reveal – or discover – very often his own, about the human condition.

If this all sounds existential, you’re right. Giacometti was deeply influenced by the philosophical ideas of the 1940s and 50s. In fact, his friend, the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote two essays on Giacometti’s art.

This vast, immersive exhibition allows you to channel your inner existentialist, slow down and consider how you – as an individual body – perceive each sculpted body in the space that surrounds you both.

Marvel at the tiny face and staff-like arms of a 10-inch tall, dark bronze human figure that rises from a disproportionately bulky pedestal resting on an oversized white table. Does something in you yearn to recognize something in it? Do you notice how each sculpture is so similar to others but also absolutely unique in composition, texture and patina?

If you see something like this, Giacometti might have been happy. He would spend weeks, even months, sitting in his small, cluttered studio and staring at the friend or family member who posed for him – mostly his wife Annette and brother Diego. He looked back and forth between the person in front of him and his work in progress, pinching, squeezing, adding or removing bits of clay or plaster of paris to and from a wire armature.

Any re-presentation of reality was a profound challenge in this era of modernist questions about art. Giacometti had moved to Paris in 1922, when Europe was still being shaken by the man-made catastrophe of World War I. Modern artists and writers debated whether art can still represent humanity or reality in a way that feels authentic. The Surrealists Giacometti was associated with proclaimed that art should emerge from the irrational, inner world – rather than attempting to recreate the so-called rational, observable outer world.

What makes Giacometti so exceptional in the history of modern art was his efforts—his struggles—to do both. You can feel the struggle, the work in every sculpture, in the bumped and torn and cut surfaces, in the abstracted faces. The eyes are often blurred and without pupils.

Like many modern artists, Giacometti looked beyond Europe for alternative ways of creating art. This exhibition, organized jointly by the Seattle Art Museum and the Paris-based Giacometti Foundation, features some ancient artworks from the Mediterranean, Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa from SAM’s collection, similar to the type of forms Giacometti was inspired by. It is also worth strolling through the hall to visit SAM’s Egyptian Gallery to see more small figures so in line with Giacometti’s in terms of size, composition, stillness and timelessness.

Most of Giacometti’s works in this exhibition date from the period after World War II, when his art became even more expressive. It’s tempting to say the characters are more tormented. Some viewers, then as now, have associated his elongated, almost skeletal body with the horrors of the Holocaust.

More broadly, many viewers find a loneliness in the figures, who often exist as individuals on massive plinths. When multiple figures share a base, they never face or even face each other.

But Giacometti shies away from such interpretations. Instead, he spoke of his post-war art as part of an ongoing search for a way to fuse self-expression with the representation of fellow human beings. Metaphorically speaking of this type of encounter, he once said: “I met a person and I went home, I managed to create him, I felt him as me, as myself, as my beliefs and I felt in one in that moment Mirror .”

Taken as a whole, the exhibition constructs a vision of the artist as restless and relentless, creating sculpture after sculpture, drawing after drawing, groping his way toward a kind of synthesis that is just beyond his reach.

This image of the artist and his quest is further completed by dozens of photographs of Giacometti by some of the most famous photographers of the time: Brassaï (who was a close friend), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks and Richard Avedon to name a few just a few.

Through her lenses we see various visions of the artist in his studio, surrounded by his attempts to capture something solid but intangible about humanity.

“Alberto Giacometti: Towards the Ultimate Character”

10am-5pm, Wednesday-Sunday, until October 9; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Avenue; $19.99 to $32.99, free for SAM members and children under 14; 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.org

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